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DCF pays $250,000 settlement in Pasco baby's death

Diella Ludwig was 2 months old when she died of blunt force trauma. Her father is charged in her death.

Special to the Times

Diella Ludwig was 2 months old when she died of blunt force trauma. Her father is charged in her death.

NEW PORT RICHEY — The mother of a baby girl who died in her father's care while child welfare workers were supposed to be watching over the family has reached a settlement with the state Department of Children and Families.

The lawsuit over 2-month-old Diella Ludwig, who died Dec. 20, 2008, was settled for $250,000. Family members will actually split less than that, after legal costs and other fees are paid.

Nicholle West, who was in prison when her daughter died, will receive about $20,000, according to Jennifer Lima-Smith, an attorney for the DCF. The award to Diella's estate, which will be shared among her three older siblings, totals $92,000. Diella's twin sister, Shyloh, will receive almost $73,000 in a separate claim.

The money for the children will be put in trust accounts, Lima-Smith said.

"We're very hopeful the settlement is going to positively impact their needs, their future needs," she said.

Shyloh, who is now about 16 months old, is in the custody of a relative in Missouri. West's two older sons are in Illinois with their father.

A middle child named Mc­Kenzie, now almost 3, was featured in a Times story last year after her aunt and uncle took her in, renamed her Georgia and integrated her into their family in the hope of adopting her. She's also in Missouri now.

Court records indicate that West has relocated there, too.

Diella Ludwig died of blunt force trauma, authorities said, after her father became enraged when she wouldn't stop crying. His roommates in Port Richey reported hearing the baby's wails, then a loud bang, then silence.

Thomas Ludwig, 25, was charged with first-degree murder and is awaiting trial. He had a history of criminal charges and drug use.

So, too, did West. She was sent to prison while pregnant with the twins after violating her probation by failing a drug test in October 2008. She gave birth while incarcerated and told authorities she wanted her babies to live with their father.

As soon as Diella's death was reported, the DCF acknowledged its failures in protecting her welfare. The primary error: Agencies in different jurisdictions, all with a role in looking out for Diella, failed to communicate with each other.

First, no one bothered to check whether Ludwig was fit to care for the twins.

Once the babies were home with him, a Pasco investigator visited him three times in 38 days — each visit at a different residence. In those visits, a followup report said, he refused to submit to a drug test, lied once about where the babies were, admitted to previous drug abuse and could not prove he had any income.

Nick Cox, the DCF's regional director, said Thursday that the case became a matter of statewide interest and led to changes in the DCF's system directing different agencies to work together.

"I think the biggest lesson was everybody involved in the system needs to get together, talk about the case," he said. "Lots of people doing their job doesn't always solve the problems."

The DCF settled the lawsuit, he said, because "we needed to step up and do the right thing by Diella and Shyloh."

"While we're accepting some responsibility … the numbers aren't ridiculous because there is responsibility that falls with the perpetrator of the crime," he added.

Darryl Rouson, who represents West, said the legal fight isn't finished and more agencies might be sued.

"I don't want to name them right now. They know who they are but there were other agencies involved that have culpability," Rouson said.

Records show that others involved in the case include the Pasco County Sheriff's Office child protection team, Youth and Family Alternatives and Eckerd Community Alternatives.

Rouson said that after West was released from prison in August, she moved into a halfway house and completed all the requirements of her release. He did not go into specifics about the children's status or custody arrangements.

"All of her children are doing well," Rouson said. "That's all relative of course. They're all still dealing with the horrendous nature of the death of Diella."

Molly Moorhead can be reached at moorhead@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6245.

DCF pays $250,000 settlement in Pasco baby's death 02/11/10 [Last modified: Thursday, February 11, 2010 10:19pm]
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